SEC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 19th, 2014

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  1. Everything was working for Kentucky during the first half of last night’s game in Oxford, and I mean everything. Jarrod Polson threw an alley-oop and made a three; Alex Poythress was getting in on the three-point action; and Julius Randle already had a double-double. With a 17-point lead it looked like Kentucky had answered any question about how they’d bounce back from a tough loss. Oh, but questions persist. The Rebels put up 45 points in the second half and were able to cut the game down to two possessions with under two minutes left. Like they did against Missouri, the Wildcats again let a big early lead slip, and allowed an opponent back into a game it had no business being in. The issues weren’t only on the defensive end. College Basketball Talk’s Matt Giles points out that only four of Kentucky’s two-point fields goals weren’t at the rim, and for an eight-minute second half stretch the Wildcats only scored on free throws. The lackluster defensive effort in the second half needs to be a learning experience for the Wildcats, since they likely won’t be able to escape a game like this against better teams (see: teams that make the NCAA Tournament). The shooting woes, however, are a bigger issue.
  2. So this writer may need to eat a little crow. Yesterday I wrote that I expected Georgia to do just fine as it entered a difficult stretch. Well, it didn’t start out that well for the Bulldogs, who took a 19-point loss to Tennessee in a game that got shuffled to ESPN due to a crumbling arena in Bloomington, Indiana. In front of a national audience, Georgia wasn’t able to validate its great SEC record. Early on the Vols did something they didn’t do Saturday against Missouri: get the ball to Jarnell Stokes, who scored 20 points and led Tennessee to advantages in rebounds and points in the paint. The Vols also have to be encouraged that they won this game without Jordan McRae having a big impact (11 points, 2-of-5 shooting). Antonio Barton made more three’s in this game (four) than he had in the last ten SEC games combined. If that sparks him out of his prolonged shooting funk it would add another dimension to Tennessee’s offense. This was the bounce back performance the Vols needed to kick off a stretch of four winnable games that could boost their resume.
  3. Frank Haith remembers all too well Vanderbilt’s three-point barrage early in Missouri’s loss in Nashville. But after forcing Arkansas and Tennessee into a combined 8-of-37 from deep, he thinks his team is on the right track defensively. “We’re doing a great job of understanding where shooters are at and personnel and doing our work early and getting there and having high hands,” Haith said. “I thought we had some slippage in that area … particularly Vanderbilt. They made some shots, but we didn’t do what we needed to do in terms of getting to their shooters, and Odom and Parker, those guys had really good games against us.” Missouri may be defending the three better of late, but its defense in general is a concern. The Tigers entered conference play with solid defensive numbers, but have sunk to 10th in the SEC in two-point field goal defense (allowing 47%) and 11th in three-point field goal defense (allowing 35.4%). They’ve also lost games in which they scored 79 and 88 (!) points. But it’s not surprising they are improving. Few teams can put the length at the top of a zone than Missouri can with Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. Thursday’s game against the Commodores will be a good litmus test of the Tigers’ progress, since Missouri did give up 12 three pointers in the first meeting.
  4. South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell has stood out amid a thoroughly disappointing season in Columbia. The freshman has Mike Anderson’s attention ahead of tonight’s game in Fayetteville, and has drawn high praise from his own coach. “He’s the guy everyone pencils in when they prepare a scouting report against us,” Frank Martin said. “I’m extremely proud of him. Not only is he performing, but he’s taking on the leadership role of our team. He’s also taking on defensive responsibilities against the better players on the other team.” Thornwell has also taken on a leadership role on the court, as he has the ninth highest usage rate (27.3%) in the SEC. Despite that much exposure he’s still been efficient shooting the ball (56.8 TS%), and though generally thought of first as a scorer, he also has the the eighth best assist percentage (22.6%) in the conference. Thornwell has had to grow up quickly with the personnel losses South Carolina has had, and it appears he’s done a great job of this on and off the court. He’s the type of just-a-cut-below-an-early-draft-entry talent that could stick around and be a tremendously accomplished four year player, and perhaps a building block for better days in Columbia.
  5. James Moran of The Daily Reveille conducted a “post-mortem” on LSU’s NCAA Tournament chances, and identified the cause of the Tigers untimely death. He writes, “The Feb. 6 loss to Georgia was actually the fatal blow to the Tiger’s season. LSU had finally gotten some momentum going for it, and losing a relatively uncompetitive game in a dead arena to a team that was 10-10 at the time killed all of it.” Can reasonable minds disagree on whether this patient is actually dead? Probably not. The Tigers sit at #70 in the RPI and just whiffed on a week that featured road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M. It’s incredible how quickly a season can turn. It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers picked up impressive back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. At this point it seems the only chance for LSU to resurrect itself would be by splitting road games against Kentucky and Florida, and winning their remaining four games (at Vanderbilt, home against Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M). We’ll see if there is one drastic change of momentum left in Johnny Jones’ talented team.
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Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

For Georgia, the “a-ha moment” seemed to come on February 6. After racing out to a surprising 4-1 SEC record (with wins over Missouri and Arkansas), the Bulldogs had lost three straight, punctuated by a loss at cellar-dweller Auburn. That looked like the end of a nice flash of a Georgia storyline. But it wasn’t. Mark Fox’s team has since reeled off four straight wins, underlining this positive streak with a quality win against Ole Miss on Saturday. This begs the question in SEC basketball circles: Is it now time to drop the second part of the “Well, Georgia is off to a good start, but they’re still not that good” sentiment that’s been discussed over the last month and a half?

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia's 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia’s 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

At some point a sample size gets too big to be simply dismissed. It’s now mid-February and the Bulldogs are four games above 0.500 in SEC play, so we may have reached that point with this team. They haven’t compiled that record by only beating the dregs of the conference — they’ve gone 4-4 against RPI top-100 SEC teams — and they haven’t won those four games with smoke and mirrors either. Georgia has the second best field goal defense (39.4%) and rebounding rate (55.3%) in the league right now, trailing only Florida and Kentucky. This is also a young team led by sophomores Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines who should be gaining confidence. To sum it up, their solid conference play to date doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

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Ole Miss and Kentucky Get Shots at Redemption

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 18th, 2014

It’s hard to say tonight’s game against Kentucky is Ole Miss’ last shot at NCAA Tournament redemption. After all, it was only one year ago that the Rebels took the drama out of their Selection Sunday by running the table in the SEC Tournament. But the odds this season are heavily against another automatic bid for Ole Miss. That makes tonight’s match-up with the Wildcats in Tad Smith Coliseum something of a last stand for Andy Kennedy’s team. The Rebels (7-5 SEC) sit alone in fourth place in the conference standings, but they are coming off close road losses to RPI #116 Alabama and RPI #85 Georgia. Those were damaging, no doubt, but the Rebels are not completely dead as they currently rank #67 in the latest RPI. That’s certainly not an enviable position for mid-February, but it isn’t so far out of the picture that a late season run can’t fix their prospects. If such a run is to happen, it needs to start tonight at home against a team that pounded the Rebels a mere 14 days ago.

Ole Miss needs everyone to pitch in on the glass to combat Dakari Johnson and Kentucky's talented front line (bigstory.ap.com).

Ole Miss needs everyone to pitch in on the glass to combat Dakari Johnson and Kentucky’s talented front line (bigstory.ap.com).

So what needs to change for Kennedy’s squad since its loss at Rupp Arena? For one, they can’t get hammered on the boards (-15) like they did in that game, and their last two losses (-23). In their lone win in the last four games, the Rebels edged out Missouri on the glass by one and did so largely by fighting for loose balls and starting the game with better energy. With freshman Dwight Coleby seeing the floor more often in recent weeks, Kennedy now has five bigs he trusts in his regular rotation. The Rebels need these numbers to translate into relentless effort to counter Kentucky’s talented and athletic front line. Ole Miss doesn’t need to win the rebounding battle, it just needs to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Of course, that’s easier said than done against the Wildcats. A return to normalcy for Sebastian Saiz would go a long way. If you remove the Missouri game from consideration, he’s grabbed only two rebounds in his last 44 minutes of game action. Saiz still has a healthy 15.7 percent defensive rebounding rate (the highest on the team) on the year, so he can be a big part of cutting into Kentucky’s advantage on the glass.

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SEC M5: 02.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 17th, 2014

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  1. SI.com’s Andy Staples had one of the many good takes on the Kentucky-Florida game that are floating around the internet. Staples listed a number of interesting tidbits like Patric Young having more college games under his belt than Kentucky’s starting lineup combined and that Florida hadn’t won in Lexington since the Joakim Noah-Al Horford days. I expected Florida to struggle this past week, and am getting close to being convinced they will break their recent Elite Eight ceiling. As great as their defense has been, they had “played down” to their competition for a concerning amount of the conference season. There were the sluggish first halves against Alabama and Mississippi State, and a close call against Auburn. I figured that rough starts in charged environments in Knoxville or Lexington would send the Gators to their first (or first and second) conference loss. But it didn’t happen. Both games were difficult and close throughout, and in both Florida found ways to win. Casey Prather’s play on Saturday was encouraging. He had struggled recently (three-of-four single digit scoring games) because of his injured ankle, but was aggressive at the beginning of the game and helped calm Florida and avoid another sluggish start. In the end, the Gators got through a tough week with two wins. So much for my concern.
  2. Resilience has been a theme to Vanderbilt’s season. On Saturday the Commodores were resilient on an in-game basis, regrouping from a putrid shooting performance through much of the game to catch Texas A&M and win in overtime. It was an ugly contest in which both teams kept fans entertained by scoring under 0.900 points per possession. Vanderbilt was especially ugly shooting the ball for three-fourths of the game, and Kyle Fuller, Dai-Jon Parker, and Rod Odom combined to go 10-for-45 from the field. James Siakam (12-of-14 FT’s, 16 points) kept the cold-shooting Commodores in the game, and probably wishes Texas A&M was on the schedule more. In two games against the Aggies he’s averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, shot over 60 percent and gotten to the free throw line 27 times. All of these numbers are well above his season averages. The Commodores lose a lot of scoring after this season with Fuller and Odom departing. Siakam will be one of the elder statesmen in 2014-15, and should use his performances against Texas A&M as confidence building blocks to play a larger offensive role.
  3. This microsite has had a lot of “Tony Barbee hot seat” chatter over the last few weeks, and how it could it not? Auburn has been stuck in an incredibly deep rut. The Tigers did just have a respectable week, with a closer-than-expected loss against Kentucky and a win over Mississippi State. Does Barbee deserve more time? The 2012-13 Tigers finished the season on a 10-game losing streak, won only three SEC games and sunk all the way to #249 in the RPI. This season’s version is currently 100 spots higher in the RPI, has four SEC wins, and has a more efficient offense despite losing leading scorer Frankie Sullivan. Things do look better, but the real question is the potential for long-term improvement. Senior Chris Denson is in the top 15 nationally in scoring and Auburn also loses Asauhn Dixon-Tatum’s rim protecting presence after the season. Barbee’s prospects will look a lot better if Tahj Shamsid-Deen continues to play well, and fellow freshmen role players Matthew Atewe and Dion Wade flash potential. Atewe may be on that path with 21 rebounds the past two games, which includes 13 against Kentucky’s talented front line.
  4. Rob Dauster’s Saturday Bubble Banter column was littered four with SEC teams. Every team but Missouri fell into the losers section. He had the Tigers as the bubble’s biggest weekend winner after beating Tennessee, since the two teams only had two opportunities for top 50 left in the regular season: the two games against each other. Missouri earned at least a split of those games, making the regular season finale in Knoxville a crucial game for the Vols. LSU and Ole Miss fell into the losers column, but Arkansas was noticeably absent. Though maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Razorbacks RPI (#73) might be too high warrant legitimate bubble status right now. If nothing else, the LSU win did diminish the resume of a team in front of them and sets Mike Anderson’s team up for a chance to redeem their case for a tournament invite. They have two winnable games in front of them (South Carolina at home and Mississippi State on the road), before a trip to Rupp Arena. If Arkansas can win the next three they’ll start to get some serious consideration.
  5. Speaking of Arkansas, if you’re a Razorback fan and had to pick one game to go to this season, Saturday might have been it. The Kentucky game was exciting (and “the Kentucky game” for any SEC fan base is generally a must-attend), but the chance to see Bill Clinton, Nolan Richardson and a number of players from the 1994 championship team is hard to top. Matt Norlander points out that Clinton is still the only sitting president to attend a Final Four. Given President Obama’s affinity for basketball, he’d seem a good candidate to break that streak. But it might take an epic turnaround (and no coaching change) at Oregon State to make that happen. But back to Clinton, who saw the Razorbacks put on a clinic from the three-point line (10-of-17). The three-point line has been part of Arkansas’ struggles away from Bud Walton Arena. The home/road splits for some of their outside threats are not pretty: Rashad Madden (46.7% home, 33.3% road), Michael Qualls (38.9% home, 23.5% road), and Mardracus Wade (46.2% home, 30% road) have each been much worse away from Bud Walton. Boosting those percentages just a little will help not only those players, but Bobby Portis as well. Portis has shown a reliable mid-range shot and back-to-the-basket game, and the loosening up the middle of the floor will make him more dangerous.
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Wichita State’s Bid For Perfection Runs Into a Valley Scoring Star

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 15th, 2014

There’s been only one story to (consistently) grab national headlines out of the Missouri Valley this season, and it’s been a big one. You may have heard that Wichita State (currently 26-0) is trying to wrap up the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s ran the table back in 2003-04. So it’s understandable that any other Valley storylines haven’t had a chance to reach national consciousness, short of Barry Hinson wanting his wife to play power forward for his team. But the Shockers’ bid for perfection runs into a Valley storyline on Saturday that needs an additional spotlight: Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, one of the best scorers you’ve probably never heard of.

D.J. Balentine is likely the best scorer Wichita State's elite defense will face all season (rantsports.com).

D.J. Balentine is likely the best scorer Wichita State’s elite defense will face all season (rantsports.com).

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you haven’t. The Purple Aces (11-14, 4-9 MVC) are near the bottom of the Valley and nowhere near any kind of postseason bid. You may, however, be hearing Balentine’s name more often over the next few years. Someone will need to assume Billy Baron’s role as the chic, mid-major scoring star, and it could very well be the Evansville sophomore. Balentine is sixth in the country in points per game (23.6) and is coming off a 38-point performance against Illinois State on Wednesday night. He dropped 43 on Northern Iowa earlier this season, and hasn’t wilted against the upper echelon of the Valley, scoring 23 against Indiana State and 26 in his first game against the Shockers. There’s no question the sophomore gets a more-than-healthy heaping of shots (15 per game), but his offensive game is dangerous because of its balance. Balentine gets to the line over eight times per game and is shooting 86 percent once he gets there. He’s also beaten teams from deep, taking 35.3 percent of his shots from three and knocking down over 40 percent of those. He’s also got the seventh best assist rate in the Valley, despite being the definition of a high-volume shooter.

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SEC M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 14th, 2014

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  1. The Missouri and Arkansas series is off to a good start if it’s ever going to deserve the rivalry week spot ESPN has given it. Three of the team’s four games as SEC opponents have come down to the final seconds and had dramatic finishes. That’s a good way to get fan bases juiced about playing one another. The stakes were pretty high in last night’s match up in Columbia as both teams desperately needed a win to keep their NCAA hopes alive. Missouri and its three-game losing streak probably needed it a bit more, and got it after Jabari Brown’s game-winning teardrop with 10 seconds left. Brown (25 points, 14-of-15 FT’s) and Jordan Clarkson (27 points, 11-of-13 FT’s) deserve the headlines. But in small steps, Ryan Rosburg has quietly handled the ball and finished better around the rim recently and deserves mention too. In his last three games he’s scored 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting. Yes, that’s as many as Clarkson scored against Arkansas alone, but Rosburg is averaging 5 points a game and has struggled catching the ball cleanly at times this season. Help defenses will collapse like a house of cards on Clarkson the rest of the way, so having Rosburg gain confidence taking dump off passes is important for the Tigers.
  2. Garnet and Black Attack has an excellent breakdown on a game that probably flew under most of college basketball’s radar: the snow-delayed afternoon tilt between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They write about a dominant Gamecock effort on the offensive glass (26 offensive rebounds, 14 more than Vanderbilt), and how it allowed South Carolina to win a game in which it shot only 38 percent. That type of hustle is key in a game at an odd time and with a strange feel. This is only the Gamecocks’ second conference win, and they’d probably have more if Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson were still available. But there’s a silver lining. Those few wins aren’t as valuable as the heavy minutes freshmen Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are logging (they played 36 and 37 minutes, respectively, against Vanderbilt). Notice struggled through a 1-for-7 first half performance that likely would’ve put him on the bench under normal circumstances. But he was needed on the floor, and played solid defense on Kyle Fuller and hit a key three in the Gamecocks 17-5 second half run. That’s valuable situational experience.
  3. LSU has bounced back well this season, going 6-1 following losses. The Tigers desperately need to keep that up Saturday in Fayetteville after dropping a head-scratcher in College Station. Or maybe it wasn’t such a head-scratcher, since the Tigers are riding a four-game road losing streak. Either way, the win was damaging to LSU’s tournament chances and raised a few concerns. For one, they let a largely underwhelming Texas A&M offense shoot 48.3% and go 10-of-23 from three (LSU has the SEC’s worst three point defense). Another issue is their backcourt depth after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. Tim Quarterman (0-for-3, two turnovers) added virtually nothing, and if he isn’t contributing LSU is entirely reliant on two players (Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer) to contribute from the guard spots. When those two struggle, as they did against the Aggies, the Tigers are in trouble.
  4. CBSSports’ Jeff Borzello talked to several coaches about Florida, and touched on a number of topics like the Gators style of play, the best way to score on them, and their biggest weakness. It’s a fascinating read (as is his whole series on championship contender breakdowns), and not something that gets put out there everyday. One coach said a concern for the Gators is that they don’t have a guy who can “overtake” a game by himself. “You know, a guy where, if you needed buckets, he can automatically get you buckets. They say to win a national championship, you need three pros. I don’t know if they have three pros,” the coach is quoted as saying. That’s definitely a legitimate concern, but Florida is so unlike modern contenders that that adage might not apply. How often in today’s college basketball does an elite team have as many seniors – with as much experience (see, three straight Elite Eight appearances) – as the Gators? And if we are being hyper-technical there probably are three pros on the roster. Chris Walker will make it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier develop into legitimate prospects. But I realize that’s not the point: there’s no ball-dominant future pro who can currently get his shot on the roster, and that’s an issue. Florida’s best bet in those situations is probably Wilbekin, who has shown big-shot chops and the ability to get to the line in recent weeks.
  5. Casey Prather and Julius Randle are the only SEC players to land on the Naismith Midseason 30. Prather makes the list despite scoring in single digits in three of his last four games, but an injured ankle has caused that speed bump and it shouldn’t take away from his season on the whole. Randle has largely lived up to the colossal expectations put on him, and he should make the cut for that alone. So let’s get to everybody’s favorite part, the snub discussion. Not to be boring, but I have no real qualms with these two being the SEC’s only representatives. Scottie Wilbekin is probably more important to Florida, is fourth in the conference in assists, sixth in steals and one of the best defenders the SEC has to offer. But that’s understandably not enough to crack the top 30. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown might both have an argument, but Missouri isn’t winning and and it’s hard for players from middling teams to get attention.
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SEC M5: 02.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Florida may have sealed its last two wins as much at the beginning of those two games than at the end of them. Against Tennessee, an early 10-0 run by the Gators allowed them to stabilize an otherwise lackluster first half (36.4% FG) and only trail a hot-shooting Vols team by one at halftime. To be sure, a couple of late threes from Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin put the game out of reach, but the Gators might not have been in that position if not for that early turnover-fueled surge. The same can be said for their game last Saturday against Alabama. The Gators had an 8-0 lead before the Tide had even gotten the ball across midcourt. This early surge similarly allowed them to withstand some frustration with Alabama’s zone and 16 first half points from Trevor Releford. Sometimes it’s not only about how you finish, but also how you start. Where does Tennessee go from here? The Vols are out of chances for a sparkling Florida/Kentucky resume-enhancing win, but their NCAA Tournament situation is far from dire. They should be favored in all of their remaining SEC games other than next weekend’s contest at Missouri, and currently at 6-5, they could be in good position to rack up an impressive conference record. Pair this with their solid overall RPI and a win or two in the SEC Tournament, and Cuonzo Martin may get his first invitation to March Madness while living in Knoxville.
  2. Momentum was there for Ole Miss to grab. The Rebels had beaten a fellow bubble buddy in Missouri, and then faced manageable road games against Alabama and Georgia before massive back-to-back home dates with Kentucky and Florida. A three-game winning streak followed by a statement win would surely have been what the resume doctor ordered. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the Tide upended Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa last night. Trevor Releford (26 points on 8-of-16 shooting) refused to let another game slip away for the Tide when the Rebels regained the lead with just under 10 minutes left. The senior went on to score 14 of the Tide’s last 16 points, including a game-winning three with under a second left. He won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament (or NIT, barring a minor miracle) in his final amateur season, but he can contribute to Anthony Grant’s program in a big way by playing hard and showing leadership despite the team’s struggles. There aren’t many young players on Alabama’s roster (just two freshmen and a sophomore), but he has set a great example nonetheless. The Rebels, for their part, essentially face a must-win game in Athens on Saturday. If they were to lose that one they could conceivably be stuck with a 7-7 record after the Kentucky/Florida gauntlet. That’s not a good look for a team that appears to be on the outside looking in right now. It’ll help if Jarvis Summers, who has had an excellent season, breaks out of his mini-road slump. In the Rebels’ last two losses at Kentucky and Alabama, he’s only 6-of-22 from the field and 1-of-6 from three despite shooting 50 percent (and that’s not a typo) from distance on the season. Marshall Henderson may be the Ole Miss wildcard, but Summers has been the steady hand that Andy Kennedy needs to return sooner than later.
  3. Johnny Jones has to plug a hole in his rotation after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. The sophomore injured his knee during LSU’s weekend win over Auburn, and had surgery Monday evening. “It’s certainly a blow to us,” Jones said. “That’s an area we are certainly going to have to look at and find out exactly how we will dispatch those minutes. He was able to give us positive minutes.” Jones indicated that freshmen Tim Quarterman (12.5 MPG) and Shane Hammink (6.3 MPG) will be counted on to replace Morgan’s 15.5 minutes per game. This isn’t a crushing blow to LSU since Morgan wasn’t relied on heavily on either end of the floor. But it does limit Jones’ options, and takes away a high energy player and occasional starter. Morgan’s length (6’4’’) and energy was valuable when the Tigers went to a zone look. Quarterman and Hammink do both have length, which is good for Jones. The other angle to this injury is how it’ll affect Morgan’s development. Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman are seniors so there will be an openings on the perimeter next season, and a full season of games would’ve been ideal for Morgan and LSU.
  4. Kentucky has won three straight games. Up next is an Auburn team against which the Wildcats own a 15-game winning streak. And after them? The third-ranked team in the country and the SEC’s biggest game to date. That game would lose a tiny bit of luster if the Wildcats are caught overlooking Auburn and suffer a letdown. “There’s no risk in overlooking Auburn. We all know that Auburn can beat us. We know that we’re going to get their best game. We know that they’re a very, very good team who has two guards who are really playing well,” said Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne. Count tonight as an unexpected measuring stick in the great experiment that is the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats. It’d be hard not to be excited for the upcoming game against Florida at home, and how hard the Wildcats play against Auburn will reveal a lot about their team maturity and development. It’s an easy game to look past, but Kentucky has already been burned on the road by a tandem of high-scoring guards. KT Harrell and Chris Denson average more combined points per game (39.6) than Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, who went for 61 against the Wildcats. This also might be another good chance for John Calipari to work on the zone defense he’s flashed recently. Harrell has been effective from deep this season (39.1 3P%) but that’s been it for the Tigers. As a team they’ve shot 31.9% from three, and two of the three players that dominate the ball (Denson and Tahj Shamsid-Deen) shoot under 30.7%. A final interesting angle to a game that looks mundane on the surface is the relationship between Calipari and Tony Barbee, who got his coaching start as a graduate assistant under Calipari at UMass, and was on his Memphis staff for six years. Since Barbee is sitting on the hot seat, this could be the last time the two face off in the SEC.
  5. There were some upgrades for the SEC this season after Mike Slive mandated tougher scheduling outside conference play. For one, despite not actually winning any of its tough games, Alabama did jump from the 69th toughest nonconference schedule in 2012-13 to the ninth toughest this season. They weren’t the only teams to upgrade. According to the Associated Press, “Kentucky (59th to 14th), Mississippi (271st to 103rd) and LSU (234th to 137th) are also among the teams who made big leaps in strength of nonconference schedule.” This still wasn’t enough, as the SEC nonconferene RPI on the whole was bad, and only Kentucky and Florida have tournament spots seemingly locked up. Slive’s policy should start to see greater returns over the next few years when coaches have greater flexibility to add more name-brand opponents. It’s unlikely anyone schedules like the Tide this year: they played Wichita State, Duke, UCLA, Oklahoma and Xavier. But their fate shouldn’t be a cautionary tale that scares off other SEC coaches. Had the Tide won even one of those difficult games (and they were close) their season could’ve taken on a different feel RPI- and momentum-wise. The SEC doesn’t currently have the cache to get their teams in based on conference play alone. Risks like Anthony Grant’s aggressive nonconference schedule need to be taken to build national respect.
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Is Vanderbilt’s Rod Odom Shooting His Way on to the NBA Radar?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2014

Rod Odom has been more than a pleasant surprise for Vanderbilt this season. The senior picked up this week’s SEC Player of the Week award, and should be in the discussion to land on an all-SEC team. His numbers are up across the board and this isn’t just a product of the over 35 minutes per game he’s been forced to play for Kevin Stallings. He’s shooting considerably better than last year despite more attempts per game, and has essentially come from under the radar to become one of the best scorers in the league. He’s also the rare breed of player that makes the hearts of NBA scouts beat just a little faster, a big man who can shoot. This got me thinking, does Odom have a chance to shoot himself from relative obscurity onto the draft radar? The NBA loves shooters with size, and the senior has shown that he can really stroke it.

Rod Odom (44.1 3P%) has shot himself into All-SEC discussion. Could there be bigger things ahead for the senior? (insider.espn.com)

Rod Odom (44.1 3P%) has shot himself into All-SEC discussion. Could there be bigger things ahead for the senior? (insider.espn.com)

  • 65.6% true shooting (up from 51.3% in 2012-13)
  • 44.1% 3FG (up from 35.3% in 2012-13 and despite taking nearly seven threes per game)
  • 74.2% FT (up from 64.2% in 2012-13)

Any player with size shooting over 40 percent from deep will get at least a glimpse from scouts. Non-traditional lineups filled with versatile players have been on the rise in the NBA for a few years, as teams try to create space for LeBron James, Derrick Rose, James Harden and others by surrounding them with shooters. Shooting from a forward is a bonus, and a big reason why Florida’s Erik Murphy heard his named called in the second round of last summer’s NBA Draft. Odom’s game this season is similar to Murphy’s production in his last two seasons in Gainesville. But despite how well the Vanderbilt senior has played this season, it doesn’t appear that he’s on the same path to the NBA.

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SEC M5: 02.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 10th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The book is written on Florida. All you have to do is throw a zone on the Gators, and it won’t matter how stifling their defense is. Well, maybe not. Florida’s offense largely struggled against Missouri’s zone during the week, and then scuffled early against Alabama’s zone on Saturday. But Casey Prather’s ability to find driving lanes (15 points) and effective interior passing (leading to a number of Will Yeguete layups) at the end of the first half forced the Tide to collapse the zone, which opened things up for Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin (three three-pointers each). Florida doesn’t have an abundance of three-point shooting, as Frazier, Wilbekin, and (at times) Dorian Finney-Smith are the only players capable of scaring opponents. But against Alabama they showed they can poke holes on the interior of zone defenses, and make up for that lack of outside shooting.
  2. You don’t have to look far to find big offensive numbers for LSU in its win against previously-streaking Auburn. The Tigers scored 55 second half points. They had five players in double figures. Anthony Hickey had five three-pointers. Jarell Martin’s 11 point performance would be pretty far down the list, but it was an unsung contribution to the LSU win, and kept the Tigers in the game early. NOLA.com’s Randy Rosetta writes, “Martin lit a fire when he followed a Jordan Mickey miss with a slam-dunk and that began a torrid stretch of the 6-foot-9 freshman scoring 10 of LSU’s 15 points over 7 minutes, the last coming on a feathery jump shot from the circle that put the home Tigers in front 16-15 and finally forced Auburn to loosen up inside.” Like with his performance against the Tigers from the Plains, Martin has been quietly coming on lately. Saturday was his third straight game scoring in double figures, after he scored 15 apiece against Arkansas and Georgia. There are a lot of reasons LSU has the look of a team built for March, their recent letdown against Georgia aside. Martin is one of them. The 6’8’’ freshman can score from any point on the floor, and is becoming more consistent. He could be a match-up nightmare down the line, especially since Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey demand so much attention.
  3. Finally, Arkansas did it. At long last the Razorbacks beat a not-so-terrible opponent on the road by winning at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Doc Harper at Arkansas Fight estimates this was the Hogs first road win over a RPI top #100 team (Vanderbilt is currently #66) in four years, and writes that the win will only mean something if Arkansas builds off of it. They’ll get their chance on the road against Missouri on Thursday, in a game with a little extra juice for Mike Anderson. The third year Razorback coach must be pleased with how his team has regrouped over the last week. The situation in Fayetteville looked dim after a home loss to Missouri, followed by a loss to LSU in which Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris were suspended. But Arkansas responded with wins over Alabama and then shook the road monkey off their back in Nashville. Qualls especially must be feeling good after the Vanderbilt game. In his second game back from his suspension he scored 17 points and hit three-of-five three pointers, helping offset a down offensive night from Bobby Portis (8 points). Momentum has been fickle for the SEC’s bubble brethren, but as of right now Arkansas is headed in the right direction.
  4. South Carolina’s season has been as forgettable as they come. The Gamecocks dropped their 13th game in a row to Tennessee Saturday in Knoxville, and were out of it early. They managed only one field goal in the game’s first eight minutes en route to a 23-point halftime deficit. At 1-9 in conference, their stretch of solid play at the end of December, in which they knocked off previously-unbeaten Saint Mary’s and won five-of-six, seems like a decade away. No one should be piling on Frank Martin in his second year though: the Gamecocks are exceedingly young, have lost Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson, and have actually been competitive in the majority of SEC games. But the 1-9 record is still unsightly, especially since “parity” has been a common theme in conference play. Every other team has at least three wins and there have been plenty of surprises (i.e., Georgia beating Missouri and LSU, Texas A&M beating Tennessee, Auburn beating Alabama). You would think South Carolina would have come up with at least one more win in such a rocky and underwhelming conference.
  5. SEC teams are littered across Jerry Palm’s latest bubble watch. He has Missouri and Tennessee “on the fence” and Ole Miss, Arkansas, and LSU with “work to do.” It’s hard for me to put see Missouri as being in better shape than two teams it recently lost to in Ole Miss and LSU, however. The Vols and (Missouri) Tigers, do however, own non-conference wins that look better now than they did in the past. Virginia’s ascent into the rankings (RPI #20) and second-spot in the ACC standings will certainly help Tennessee, which drilled the Cavaliers in Knoxville. To a much lesser extent, West Virginia’s (RPI #69) recent string of good play (until an understandable beating in Allen Fieldhouse) could help Missouri. The tournament picture is muddy for the SEC, but at the very least there are a handful of teams in the bubble mix. That’s about all you can ask for given where the conference stands right now.
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SEC M5: 02.07.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 7th, 2014

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  1. Does anyone want to break away from the pack and become the third best team in the SEC? LSU looked like a prime candidate to do just that after wins over Kentucky and Arkansas last week, but the Tigers saw Tennessee’s momentum-killing loss at Vanderbilt on Wednesday and raised them a Thursday loss at Georgia. Sure, Georgia had an even conference record going into this game, but the Tigers still should have been able to take care of business in Athens. Nemanja Djurisic (17 points, 7-of-7 from the free throw line, six rebounds) has been inconsistent this year, but when he’s right, he can be one of the toughest match-ups in the SEC. His range (2-of-3 from three) pulls defenders away from the basket and helped Georgia neutralize a better rebounding team. Foul trouble on the LSU bigs didn’t help either. Mark Fox’s team now has two quality wins against Missouri and LSU, and the Bulldogs have won more than they’ve lost in conference play. Georgia could be setting up for an impressive SEC record as they’re already done with Kentucky and Florida. Given the loss of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA and how the Bulldogs played in non-conference play (6-6), finishing above .500 in SEC play would be a huge success.
  2. A lot of well-deserved freshman love has flowed to Kentucky’s class, and more recently, LSU’s Jordan Mickey. But it sure needs to flow to Bobby Portis too after what he did against Alabama. The Little Rock native kept the Razorbacks competitive against the Tide almost by himself, scoring 29 of the team’s first 35 points en route to an Arkansas freshman record-tying 35 points. No Razorback freshman had scored that much since Jannero Pargo was pinging threes into Bud Walton Arena’s nets back in 2002. Portis’ big game couldn’t have come at a bigger time for the Hawgs. Last week’s losses to Missouri and LSU didn’t kill their chances at an NCAA at-large bid, but a loss to the struggling Tide probably would have. If Arkansas is to keep winning, Mike Anderson needs to keep Portis on the court because not many players are capable of going 14-of-17 from the field. He hasn’t played fewer than 28 minutes since SEC play began, and his minutes need to continue to be in the low 30s to stay fresh enough to succeed, but this is one horse Anderson needs to ride as far as he can.
  3. Shooting over 50 percent from the field cures a lot of ills. Texas A&M’s offense was downright putrid against Florida (elite defense aside) recently, scoring only 36 points and shooting only 25.9 percent from the field. Enter Mississippi State, which was on a three-game losing streak and likely eager to face that Aggies’ attack in its first-ever trip to College Station. But Jamal Jones scored 20 points, Alex Caruso had 10 assists, and Texas A&M nearly doubled up its output from the Florida game while winning, 72-52. This was the type of solid all-around performance Billy Kennedy needed to instill some confidence in his players for the rest of the way. Not only did the Aggies make more shots than they missed, they also generated 22 assists against only six turnovers.
  4. We know Chris Walker has big-time potential, and we know he’s going to help Florida in some way or another before this season is out. There are a lot of things we don’t know about him too, like what exactly happened with respect to those impermissible benefits before he arrived in Gainesville. A lot of people don’t know much about Walker’s past either, and the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway wrote a good article on that topic. Walker was abandoned by his biological parents, and lost his care-giving grandmother at  the tender age of 12 years old. It’s nice that Walker’s current story is no longer one of whether he’ll play, but rather how much he can help the Gators as he works his way into game shape. That’s an easy story to root for given how much he went through just to get to Florida.
  5. Quick, which is the hottest team in the SEC behind Florida and its 14-game winning streak? I’ll give you the answer: Vanderbilt, which has won four straight games. Behind the Commodores? Auburn, which won its third straight game by beating South Carolina on the road. It hasn’t been often in Tony Barbee’s tenure that his team has had the third-longest winning streak in the conference — it’s not much, but it’s something. Obviously Chris Denson and KT Harrell (25 points each) are the story here, but Tahj Shamsid-Deen (12 point, three assists) should be a thorn in opponents’ side for the next four years. He’s the type of crafty, confident point guard who will get more effective as he gains additional experience. The freshman ranks 10th in the SEC in assists per game, and touts an impressive turnover percentage (13.3 percent) for a first-year player.
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Missouri at Risk of Losing NCAA Bid and Its Two Best Players

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 6th, 2014

Once the season is complete, Frank Haith might have just lost out on an NCAA Tournament bid as well as the two players who have kept his team afloat this season. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown have been doing their best to put Missouri on the happy side of the NCAA bubble, but 61 combined points against Kentucky and 29 against Florida’s meat-grinder defense didn’t lead to victories. Now the Tigers are out of chances for a sparkling regular season conference wins. With an RPI in the 50s and nine games remaining against mostly equivalent or worse profiled teams, the Tigers cannot afford to drop another “should-win” game. Despite the best efforts of Clarkson and Brown, there’s a better-than-reasonable chance that Missouri will come up empty on Selection Sunday, and to make matters worse, NBADraft.net projects the two guards as top 33 picks in its latest mock NBA Draft.

Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson could each be headed to the NBA after this season, leaving Frank Haith in a difficult position (bigstory.ap.org).

Brown and Clarkson could each be headed to the NBA after this season, leaving Frank Haith in a difficult position (Credit: AP).

Are there good reasons for the duo to stay in Columbia past this season? Of course there are. Both are too right-hand dominant going to the rim, and Clarkson’s value stands to skyrocket if he became a more refined distributor with a more consistent outside shot. Then there’s the  issue of the abnormally deep draft class this season. Still, the pull of the NBA might be strong for two transfers who already lost a year of real game action, and people have begun to take notice of the pair’s talents: “[Brown] is getting everybody’s attention. Everybody understands what he is doing. He has done it against great defenses and people that have put an emphasis and a focus on him. That is a tribute to him offensively, how good and talented he is,” said Billy Donovan. You can never fault a player for striking while the iron is hot. Brown is quite frankly playing like an ideal NBA shooting guard with his three-point shooting and improved slashing ability. Clarkson is an intriguing point guard prospect with great size and superior athleticism. There may be no time like this spring for the two to throw their names into the NBA pot.

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SEC M5: 02.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 5th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The most unlikely of Wildcats played the starring role in Kentucky‘s win over Ole Miss last night. A guy who had lost his starting spot and grabbed 13 total rebounds in the last five games suddenly looked like an NBA prospect again. I’m talking about Willie Cauley-Stein, who put up a great stat line (18 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks) to bust out of his slump in a big way. His effort contributed to Kentucky’s dominance on the glass (+15) despite Andy Kennedy starting a big lineup that included Aaron Jones, Anthony Perez and Sebastian Saiz. Cauley-Stein’s out-of-nowhere performance is part of what makes the Wildcats so dangerous. They’ve been inconsistent, but there are seven players on that team who will play professionally, and each can break out and carry the team for a few moments at a time. That’s something opposing coaches just can’t prepare for. On the Rebels’ side, Jarvis Summers had a disappointingly quiet 11 points and three assists. The junior has been one of the best guards in the SEC this season, and it was a shame he wasn’t able to make his mark on national television.
  2. There are teams that grind you to a nub, and there is Florida, which grinds you into oblivion. The Gators were sloppy with the ball in the first half and let Missouri hang around in Gainesville until deep into the second half. But Florida’s high-energy, effective defense finally wore the Tigers down, forcing them into a prolonged scoring slump midway through the second half that allowed the Gators to reach a comfortable lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Jabari Brown ended up with a decent stat line (15 points, six assists), but the Gators did a great job chasing him off of screens and denying him open looks. Florida’s offensive balance also showed up big time in this game. Casey Prather was held to a season-low five points, but Scottie Wilbekin got to the line 16 times while Michael Frazier had four second half threes to bury the Tigers. There are a variety of ways the Gators can score, and Chris Walker is now in that mix too. The freshman only played seven minutes, but snuck behind Missouri’s zone for two lob dunks in that brief time. Billy Donovan simply has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal this season. Earnest Ross’ play is somewhat concerning for Missouri. The senior scored just three points and is 3-of-15 in his two games (after scoring 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting against Arkansas). A two-game slump isn’t a death sentence, of course, especially when it comes against Kentucky and Florida, but Missouri doesn’t have the offensive firepower to overcome another low-output game from Ross.
  3. Jordan Mickey was bound to eventually get some national credit, and he finally broke through by winning last week’s Wayman Tisdale Watch’s Freshman of the Week award. He outclassed Kentucky’s bigs during the week, then outperformed Arkansas’ Bobby Portis over the weekend. CBSSports‘ Jeff Borzello writes, “He will continued to be overshadowed within the SEC by Kentucky’s stud group of freshmen and on a national level by the future top-five draft picks, but Mickey has shown for three months that he is one of the best freshmen in the country — at both ends of the floor.” He was also initially overshadowed in his own class by Jarrell Martin, but at this point it’d be hard to keep him off the SEC’s lengthy all-conference first team. Mickey is leading the conference in blocks per game (3.8), eighth in rebounds per game (7.3) and averaging a healthy 13.6 points per game. It’s nice to see him get some well-deserved recognition after spending all that time in the shadows.
  4. Alabama‘s tumble can be seen in a lot of places, one of which is the current RPI standings. The Tide dropped 27 spots to #114 after lopsided losses to Auburn and Tennessee in the last week. According to AL.com‘s Andrew Gribble, no team in the current top 175 took a bigger hit last week. Anthony Grant’s squad entered SEC play with a fair number of understandable losses (five losses against teams in the RPI top 25), but they can no longer hang their hat on that qualifier. The Tide now have four losses to teams with worse RPI ratings, and that is the real disappointment. It’s a shame that Trevor Releford, one of the SEC’s more productive four-year players in recent memory, is having to wallow through such a frustrating senior season. What’s scary for Grant is that he has only three players on his roster that are either freshmen or sophomores and he loses Releford’s stabilizing presence after this year.
  5. Apparently Billy Kennedy hasn’t shown much emotion since arriving in College Station, but he showed a sense of humor recently. That’s probably a good thing, since his team’s offense has been depression-inducing. The Aggies have averaged fewer than 0.77 points per possession in three of their last four games. This culminated in their 36-point, 0.57 points per possession performance on Saturday against Florida. What needs to change? For one, Kennedy could use a true point guard that would allow Alex Caruso to play off the ball, and he might have that next season in incoming four-star point guard Alex Robinson. Caruso is a great creator, but not a true point guard in terms of speed, and putting his abilities off the ball could really open up the offense. This all assumes that Kennedy is still the coach next season, which is not a sure bet in Aggieland.
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